Spain, 2019. It is a beautiful summer evening. We have set a table underneath the olive tree, overlooking the sea. It is a special treat for us to be among old friends, since we left Europe to live in New York four years ago. Our daughters, seated among us at the table, are all young teenagers now. Everyone is lending a hand, the conversation is fun and easygoing as it can only really be when you are in the company of people you trust. I notice how Olivia, my eleven year old daughter, is looking around the table waiting for an opening to say something. She is shy in front of adults, but at last she speaks up. “At school my friends and I have started to learn about Fridays for Future. We have even joined some of the marches in New York. Our teachers and some parents who are scientists have helped us learn more about climate change. I think it is really urgent we do something.” It is true, since the beginning of the year the girls' growing interest in climate change has had some real impact in our family. First, they went vegetarian, and I can see almost daily how they grapple with balancing their desire for things with their carbon footprint. “In just a few weeks, we will have a really big climate march in New York. I think Greta Thunberg, who started Fridays for Future, will be there also!”. Now the other Olivia, my good friend Georg's twelve-year-old daughter, chimes in. “Same here! My friends and I also participate in Fridays for Future at home in Barcelona.”
As the girls share their excitement about Fridays for Future, the mood at the table begins to change. Visibly agitated, Georg jumps into the conversation. “I hate any form of personality cult, and this is exactly what this Greta has become. This hasn’t played well in the past. Also, Greta is autistic, so there must be someone who is telling her what to say! She’s just a puppet, and teens are just blindly falling for her.” Soon, several of the grownups join in and lay into Fridays for Future and Greta Thunberg. They look defensive, their faces red. They no longer talk to the two Olivias, but debate among themselves.
Then, quite abruptly, the evening ends in an awkward silence. The girls leave to hang out. As we clear the table, Georg, like the other grownups, looks visibly uncomfortable.
A year has passed, and I call Georg to ask him if he would be comfortable for us to revisit the evening, to understand why things happened the way they did. To me, the evening had revealed something about our relationship to change. “You know, I feel very strongly that Greta Thunberg is a distraction, that she is divisive, polarizing and not building bridges. I have a real aversion to this kind of idolizing of leaders, to have persons who symbolize a cause. I don’t know, maybe it is to do with being German, because of our history.” He goes on to explain that he prefers answers that are more nuanced, technocratic and science based. To him, it feels dangerous when young people are enthralled by a personality they only know from social media and who is promoting such uncompromising demands.
But as our conversation is moving along, I notice how Georg is taking longer pauses, becoming more pensive. “Maybe there was also something else that caused me to react the way I did. I can’t quite put my finger on it. I think I felt a bit overwhelmed, put on the spot. Vulnerable. It was a terrible feeling. I may have felt that I don’t have any real answers to the threat climate change poses to our children. But at the same time, as a father, I am supposed to protect them, know all the answers.”
Georg and I had become close friends over the twelve years that I had lived in Barcelona. He is incredibly thoughtful and I admire his work as a successful editorial photographer working for magazines, spending time with journalists and traveling all over the world. As a teenager, I had dreamed of becoming a photo journalist, like him. And both of us had grown up in quite similar circumstances, moderately conservative households, in what was West Germany at the time.
I ask Georg whether, if he had known in advance that we would talk about Fridays for Future that evening, he might have handled the conversation differently. “Yes. No doubt. I don’t think I would have got caught up on the credibility of the leader. I mean, the evening was about the girls sharing their enthusiasm for a civic cause. It seems short-sighted, in hindsight, to try to discredit the movement or win an argument against the girls. It should have been a moment to celebrate that our daughters spoke up about a cause they cared about.” He tells me that with a moment's more time to reflect, he might have seen the bigger picture. “I should have helped them, first and foremost, by listening and engaging with their ideas. There would also have been no harm admitting that I myself was afraid also. That I don’t know the answers. It would have been nice to open the door to an ongoing conversation with them about how we can change things. You know, they actually know a lot.”
Georg's words resonate not just with my experience as a parent, but also my professional experiences. Fear of change triggers reactions that stop so many families, businesses, governments and others from listening to one another. Put on the spot, we rush to restore order, even when we know it is wrong. To restore order, we assert ourselves by tapping into stereotypes, prejudice and posturing that have been cultivated for generations. For example, take the fact that according to Eric Dawson, the founder of the youth-empowerment group PeaceFirst, 99% of media coverage consumed (and produced) by adults presents young people as either the problem or the victim, feeding the prevailing preconception that young people have nothing to say. It is not surprising that eighty percent of young people feel misrepresented by mainstream media.
Sadly, not listening is the norm of how we deal with our fear of losing control. Behavioral scientists have for decades known that people all too commonly behave in ways that are contrary to their best interest. It is in moments of crisis, whether in our economy or at a family dinner, that we all too often rush to actions we subsequently come to regret because we stopped listening to those who mattered most.
In my next post, I round up the topic of listening by diving into how the Spanish government jumped into action without listening to those affected during the financial crisis of 2007/8, devastating the lives of millions of citizens. It will be the opening shot to introduce The Slow Lane.